My students can’t make sense of their textbooks.

I sort of clued in to that last year, but the full weight of it is finally hitting me.  Part of the problem is that I’ve never met an electronics textbook I liked — topics are always organized for memorizing rules, which means they’re backward for conceptual understanding.  Also, they assume that students in an electronics course have mastered high school physics.  It’s an entrance requirement, after all.  Yes, they all passed that course, but to assume that they understood it is patent nonsense.  So my displeasure with the textbook was obvious to last year’s students, who blamed their lack of comprehension on it being a “bad textbook,” and I ended up having to do damage control all year.

This year, I kept my complaints to myself.  I realized that students needed some coaching on how a textbook is different from a novel or a newspaper, so I had a class on identifying structural elements, finding things in the glossary, knowing when to use the index vs. when to use the table of contents (most didn’t know the difference), etc.  And that was helpful.  We’re doing better at using the textbook like a dictionary, not a bedtime story.  And once we got those obstacles out of the way, I started noticing a bunch of other things that had been hidden under them.

Most of my students can’t tell where specifically they got lost.   Q: What did you find confusing about last night’s reading?  A: All of it!

Most of my students have reading comprehension strategies.  If they get lost while reading text that is about a familiar topic, they have ways to get unlost.  I know this because I see them stopping, rereading, marking their books, etc.  But they are unaware of their strategies, or don’t realize that those things help with comprehension.  They do them sort of intuitively, without thinking about them, and can’t name them when asked.  That means that when they read text that is about an unfamiliar topic, they can’t call on those strategies consciously, and so the whole text seems hopeless.  Q: What can you do to help yourself figure out the meaning?  A: Nothing!

Other broad issues are at play here: their unfamiliarity with self-assessment, the common assumption that learning is something that happens effortlessly to “smart” people, their shame at not knowing and tendency to hide the evidence.  I’m slowly starting to learn how to deal with those too.  But the reading baffled me.

This reading process by Chris Hill helped.  I really like Mortimer Adler’s book How To Read A Book, and maybe I’ll adapt some of that material. I also learned a bunch from reading Cris Tovani’s book I Read It But I Don’t Get It.  Readable, well-organized, persuasive, concrete… I loved this book. Unfortunately it is a giant catalogue of things I now realize I should be doing in my classroom, but was oblivious to. On practically every page I had a face-palm moment, recognizing my own students’ complaints in her anecdotes, and realizing, “oh, THAT’s what they’re doing.” Tovani got me thinking about great questions, and provided lots of example exercises or lesson plans that made sense to me:

  • How to find your confusion
  • How to deal with confusion when you find it
  • How to mark text
  • How to find a purpose when it seems like there’s no point
  • How to make predictions that are not outlandish

And these ideas are not just about reading comprehension. I get the feeling they’re about comprehension in general; in other words, some of this material is about teaching critical thinking and intentional learning.  Wrangling this stuff into a format I can use in class goes in the file of “summer projects”…